Monday, June 4, 2018

My First Time: Siobhan Fallon

The First Time I Made It Through

The first time I set foot in the Middle East, I knew I would write about it.

I remember it so clearly right now, sitting at my computer, seven years later. I got off the plane at Amman amid chaos, confusion and noise. I entered the vast lines of Immigration with my three-year old daughter, the smells and the people crushing me on all sides. I knew my husband was waiting for me on the other side of Customs, but how to get there?

A man in a suit spotted the American passport in my fist and came up to me, told me in passable English that he would do all of my “very difficult” paperwork, and get me in the “fast” line for about $100 American. I smiled, clutched my passport and my daughter even tighter, and got in line with everyone else.

I made it through.

That seems to sum up just about everything for me when it comes to living abroad. I made it through. And it also seems to sum up everything to me when I think of my writing. There is the total confusion of facing this wild, unknown place. There is the total confusion of facing this wild, blank page. But somehow the writing can save me.

I’m terrible about keeping a journal in my ordinary, American life. Why bother? I think to myself, I mean, this is just ordinary American life, right? But when I travel, I take notes, lots of notes, because I know my life in this place is transitory, and, in having an expiration date, it is somehow more valuable. Perhaps this is not a good way to live a life, but fortunately I have spent a lot of my life living abroad. In the little notebook I kept in my purse while living in Jordan, my first entries are about that first airport arrival. How the men who helped with baggage all wore blue jumpsuits with numbers on their backs and looked like jailed prisoners, how the young man who helped me with my suitcases was #38 and, though polite, never once looked me in the eye. How the policemen outside who tried to direct traffic wore little pointy metal hats and too-tight uniforms, and for all of their dramatic gesticulating and whistling, cars were braking, honking, pulling up on the sidewalk, parking any way they liked.

I depended on this little journal while writing my novel, The Confusion of Languages. When I was frustrated with plot and structure and wanted to taste Jordan again, I’d flip through those stained pages and images would come at me, seconds, minutes, days, all so vivid; some wonderful, some painful. And I’d start writing, rejuvenated, starting small, with a random recipe I’d found, or a description of a fruit stand at the corner of a busy Amman city street, or how a lamb carcass hung from a hook in a window of a decidedly un-airconditioned butcher shop.

I lived in Jordan for less than one year, and it took me nearly five years to write a novel set there. Readers, life abroad can be difficult. And writing a book, well, it can really suck. So start small. You will fuck up. You will get lost. You will get almost every single word wrong. You’ll hit dead end after dead end but, trust me, you’ll turn around, retrace your steps, and slowly, painstakingly, happen upon a place that is more beautiful than you could have ever imagined. And it wasn’t even in the guidebook.

You’ll lose faith in yourself. But you’ll find it again.

You’ll make it through.

Siobhan Fallon’s novel, The Confusion of Languages, will be released in paperback Summer, 2018. She is the author of the 2012 PEN Center USA Literary Award in Fiction winning You Know When the Men Are Gone. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post Magazine, Woman’s Day, Good Housekeeping, The Huffington Post, and Prairie Schooner, among others. She and her family moved to Jordan in 2011, and they currently live in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

My First Time is a regular feature in which writers talk about virgin experiences in their writing and publishing careers, ranging from their first rejection to the moment of holding their first published book in their hands. For information on how to contribute, contact David Abrams.

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